Women and Church Ministry

I’ve been preparing a lecture on Paul and Women the last couple of days and I told Karla that I’m now definitely in the “Mutuality” (Egalitarian) camp. I’m finally willing to come out and nail my flag on the mast of the “Mutuality” (Egalitarian) position.

This has been a direction I’ve been moving toward over the last decade since completing my Ph.D. and getting a job at North Park University. In the lead up to interviews that year (I interviewed, in the end, at three institutions) we knew the two questions we needed to be prepared to answer in the contexts of evangelical Christian Higher Ed were on Inerrancy and Women in Ministry. We all knew this going into the process (BTW: I feel much more certain now about my view of the latter than the former).

The ECC, the denomination to which NPU is affiliated, actively supports the ordination of women. When I was being interviewed in 2006, the President of the ECC, Glenn Palmberg, was on the search committee. In the interview he asked me what my position was on women in ministry. In fact, he only asked me two questions: one on women and the other on homosexuality. At the time, I was uncertain of what my view was on this important issue (I think Scot suspected this, but knew I hadn’t settled the issue). I had, by that time, become uncomfortable with the fundamentalism in which I was reared. I grew up in a religious context that would have been offended by the idea that a divorcee would be allowed to be pastor (even before becoming a Christian), let alone a women! In 2006, if I had had language for it, I would have called myself a soft-complementarian (using William Webb’s language in Slaves, Women and Homosexuals). But I didn’t want to be defined by this or any position because I was still very uncertain of my own view. I had just not given it the time it needed in my study and reflection. I had spent four years studying Matthew. I got schooled on just enough of the discussion to appear informed. By the way, how could anyone expect a young newly minted Ph.D. student to have a firm view on something as complex as this! Pretty ridiculous expectation if you ask me.

So on that March afternoon when Glenn asked me the question about women and ministry I gave a very short, but definitive response. One that was truthful to be sure, but one that I hoped would not elicit a follow up question. I would have had a difficult time unpacking my statement in a way that would have satisfied him. I said, “I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is a respecter of gender when he dispenses the gifts. The gifts of the spirit are given to both male and female equally and without distinction”. I delivered it definitely enough apparently because he didn’t ask a clarifying follow up question! I believed that then, but the fullness of what it meant for me or what it would come to mean was at best incipit. Now almost a decade later, I am fully on board with the perspective Scot McKnight outlines in his book Blue Parakeet. Of course, it should be no surprise that I was influenced by Scot (and I suspect this was not just one-directional) as we were colleagues for 7 of my 8 years at NPU—spending many Tuesday and Thursday mornings in long conversations about an innumerable number of topics. I’m honored to have been his colleague at NPU and now in the D.Min. program we’re teaching together Northern Seminary and to consider him a close friend.

This is not to say that I don’t still have reservations about the exegesis of the key “Silence” passages in Paul (1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:8-15), because I do. Scot presents the view that believes in both cases Paul is talking about “learning before teaching”. The commands are specific to the situation into which Paul was writing. They are not then universal prohibitions on women in ministry. I didn’t at the time when he was writing the book, but I would tell Scot now, that I think he states his conclusions more strongly than the evidence in the passages allow, although I agree with him in principle. I suspect that he would respond that he agrees with me about the necessity of humility in our interpretations, but would be quick to add that for a book like Blue Parakeet, written as it was for a wide readership, you can’t qualify ever statement. This would make for a poorly written book. What’s more, I think Scot would push back and say he was swinging his rhetorical bat for the fences (he would like my analogy as we are both avid Baseball fans, although I root for the superior team!) and the strongly stated conclusions were intentional. On both of these things I concede.

The silence passages are important and are part of the argument, but I have come to believe with the late R. T. France that the exegetical difficulties and unresolved questions of these passages marginalize their influence. The issue isn’t settled simply by appeal to Paul’s words. In my Paul class I have students debate the issue. Last semester the team who were tasked with the negative (con) argument that Paul was opposed to women in leadership roles in ministry lost the debate badly. Besides being wholly unprepared, their argument and strategy was simply to read Paul’s two statements over and over again; louder and louder as the debate went on I might add (as if the volume level would final “silence” the other side). This didn’t convince anyone that the view was better or right. The pro-women and ministry side of the debate had a hermeneutically sophisticated argument that showed the complexity of the issue and at the very least made the con-side seem weak. The class voted overwhelmingly in favor of the pro-women in ministry side. Even one of the students who agrees with the view that the con-side was arguing–yes there are those folks at NPU I’m pleased to say–later said they had to vote for the pro-side in spite of their own personal view because of how poor the other side argued its case.

I therefore remain open to being convinced otherwise on exegetical grounds, but by now I’m not optimistic that this kind of clarity will emerge out of nowhere. By now all that can be said about the definitions of terms, Paul’s use of earlier biblical traditions, and the historical and literary context, has been said. Here is what France wrote in the 1990’s:

We had to admit that we know too little about the circumstances of the letter, and that there are too many obscure or ambiguous features to the argument, to allow any exegesis to claim to have uttered the last word. But that conclusion is in itself important for our present theme. This is, by common consent, the one passage of Scripture on which the argument against the ordination of women rests most firmly. If even this pivotal passage proves to be open to such a range of interpretation, and to leave so many unresolved questions for the modern interpreter, how secure a basis can it be for resolving an issue of major ecclesiological importance? (Women in the Church’s Ministry, 70).

I’ve come to my position for these reasons:

  1. My developing hermeneutics
  2. My relational orbit
  3. The historical facts about education, marriage and women the first century world
  4. The wider biblical considerations
  5. The social and gospel implications

I’ll write some short posts on each of these points in the near future.

  • scotmcknight

    The little book by France is without parallel in the literature.

  • Scott

    What an excellent way to tell your story of coming out and flag-nailing. Thank you for this post. I hope it spurs many people to think further about these issues!

  • Jim Dekker

    Thanks for sharing this journey. I look forward to further comments.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Welcome to the fold!

  • Leslie

    I am an Egalitarian in a primarily (but non-confrontational) complementarian environment… and for the same reasons. Love the phrase “the
    exegetical difficulties and unresolved questions of these passages
    marginalize their influence,” because that is approximately what I say when I bring up these passages.

  • KristeninAL

    I am very interested in this topic; Osvaldo and I have had (and continue to have) many discussions concerning it. I look forward to reading what you have to say, and I think I need to get my hands on your gender equality book!

  • Andrew Rogers

    You’ve done a great job of telling your story within the context of a divisive issue. Scot’s book was a critical read for me as well. Great post!

  • Fallulah

    Congrats on your new found Feminism! Be careful though…churches don’t like us egalitarians!

  • Paul

    Thanks, Joel. Happy to see civil and well-thought-out positions on what has come to divide so many. Curious if Phil Payne’s Man and Woman: One in Christ had any influences? See my 10-part summary at http://inchristus.wordpress.com/category/phil-payne/.

    • Levi

      Thanks for the link. I just picked this one up and have only begun to wade through it. For someone who doesn’t know Greek, it’s been a tough slog so far.

  • Nate

    So, Michael, if I understand correctly, t seems that evidence for the ‘con’ side of things is too ambiguous to make any strong arguments against women’s ordination, but does it follow that since there’s no solid basis for the con, you’re now a pro, or do you feel that the NT presents ‘pro’ and that Paul was specifically situational in some instances (Ephesus), and sensitive to the overall culture in other instances, i.e., promoted patriarchy so the gospel message would not be a stumbling block? In other words, was Paul a closet egalitarian or did he teach this as matter of fact?

    • Joel Willitts

      This wasn’t Michael’s post. Joel Willitts wrote it.

  • h00die_R

    This post made my day. Excellent. Can’t wait to read more.

  • E.G.

    Thanks. Great post.

    Blue Parakeet was instrumental in better solidifying my views (although I had tended that way since youth).

    Two other books that have helped me to better enunciate this position are Stackhouse’s “Finally Feminist” and the many-authored “How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership.”

  • Ian

    Excellent piece. I think 1 Cor 14:34-35 is reasonably clear, as from the context Paul appears to be addressing disruptive speech. However, exegesis of 1 Tim 2:8-15 is difficult, partly because of the hapax legomenon authentein. As France rightly says, we mustn’t therefore allow it to dominate the discussions.
    I look forward to your future posts, and hope that you’ll be able to address the main argument (other than proof-texts) of the “complementarian” camp – that male headship is taught throughout the Bible and is therefore God’s design.


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